In Memoriam John William Godward: Fleeting beauty 1

John William Godward (1861-1922), A Priestess of Bacchus (1890), oil on canvas, 29 x 45 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the commonly-quoted propositions of the Aesthetic movement was that painting could become more like music, which was argued to be a purely sensory experience, without narrative or ‘meaning’. Although other artists explored that idea from the late 1850s onwards, and it’s well-illustrated in Frederic, Lord Leighton’s Flaming June (1895), most painters avoided the goal of ‘pure art’ painting.

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896), Flaming June (c 1895), oil on canvas, 120.6 × 120.6 cm, Museo de Arte, Ponce, Puerto Rico. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the last neo-classicist painters of the Victorian era in the UK who made a career out of such ‘pure art’ works was John William Godward (1861-1922), who died a century ago tomorrow. In this article and its conclusion tomorrow, I look briefly at some of the paintings he made during his prolific and highly successful career.

Very little is known about his life, because he was estranged from his family for much of it, and his papers were all destroyed on his death. Likewise with his paintings: because he avoided the use of symbols or narrative, there is remarkably little to say about most of them. We must therefore rely on them to do whatever telling they can.

Godward was born in Wimbledon, south of London, and nothing is known of his training. He doesn’t appear to have attended the Royal Academy Schools, nor to have trained outside London. It’s probable that he attended at least part-time classes at one of the art schools or groups which had become numerous at the time, and that much of his painting was, to some degree at least, self-taught.

His earliest known paintings date from about 1880, but it wasn’t until 1887 that he first started exhibiting at the Royal Academy.

John William Godward (1861-1922), Grecian Reverie (1889), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

He soon established himself in similar style to Leighton’s later Aesthetic works, such as Flaming June, expressed using the marble of Alma-Tadema, although it’s not known whether he had much contact with those artists. Grecian Reverie (1889) is his parallel to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings of Fanny Cornforth, but they lack Rossetti’s emotional intensity and complexity, and their settings are bland marble buildings.

John William Godward (1861-1922), Ianthe (1889), oil on canvas, 64 x 29.5 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Godward is one of very few painters who depicted Ianthe from classical mythology. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she married Iphis, who was born female, raised as a male, then was changed into a man by the goddess Isis. Sadly, his two paintings of Ianthe dodge telling any of Ovid’s story, although they’re beautiful. His Ianthe from 1889, above, simply shows her as bride-to-be, and the undated version below is no less uninformative.

John William Godward (1861-1922), Ianthe (date not known), oil, dimensions not known, Private collection. The Athenaeum.
John William Godward (1861-1922), A Priestess of Bacchus (1890), oil on canvas, 29 x 45 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

A Priestess of Bacchus (1890) is an example of the gap between the likes of Leighton and Alma-Tadema, and Godward’s plainer marble. Apart from the characteristic thyrsus, the staff topped with a pine cone, there is nothing here relating to Bacchus, or the activities of such a priestess. The distant landscape is strongly reminiscent of Leighton’s Mediterranean views, but too far away to have much effect on this scene. The young couple seen at the left appear to be staffage, and don’t seem to have any relationship with the priestess.

John William Godward (1861–1922), Waiting for the Procession (1890), oil on canvas, 107.3 x 71.1 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Among Godward’s models were at least two of the famous Pettigrew sisters. Hetty is thought to have posed for him from about 1887, and her sister Lily might have joined her in Waiting for the Procession from 1890.

John William Godward (1861-1922), Playtime (1891), oil on canvas, 50.8 × 41 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The Playtime (1891) referred to in this painting is that of a kitten with a peacock feather, both frequently appearing in Aestheticist paintings. Much of the rest is then decoration and embellishment around that central scene, begging the question as to the role of the man and second woman. One of the few details shown on the building is an interesting echo, in the painted image of a peacock at the upper left.

John William Godward (1861–1922), Far Away Thoughts (1892), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Far Away Thoughts (1892) is a beautiful portrait of a young model in thought, but lacks the power and symbols of Rossetti, for instance.

John William Godward (1861–1922), Yes or No (1893), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Yes or No (1893) assumes the popular theme of proposal of marriage, explored in the direction of gaze, but adopts an altogether blander approach to that of Alma-Tadema’s earlier A Foregone Conclusion, for example. Godward reduces what might have been a simple narrative to a single question.

John William Godward (1861-1922), Mischief and Repose (1895), oil on canvas, 58.4 x 130.8 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Mischief and Repose (1895) is a little more complex, with two diaphonously-clad women idling away their time, one playing little tricks with the hair of the other. Godward’s marble has become more interesting here, and in parts threatens to overwhelm the figures. He is thought to have used the two Pettigrews again, with Hetty on the left.